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Designing Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs)

A guide to designing multiple choice questions (MCQs).

When to use MCQs 

Multiple choice questions can be used in a range of teaching and learning situations –  from lectures and seminars, where students can use response systems to answer questions in real time, to revision quizzes that can be completed online, to summative assessments where scores influence academic credit.   

Anatomy of an MCQ 

Multiple choice questions are designed with three distinct parts: a stem (the question), a key (the correct answer), and distractors (the incorrect answers). 

Learning Technology options

There are several different applications that can be used to create MCQ tests. One of the main benefits of using a piece of software to design an MCQ as opposed to using a paper test is that the software can automatically mark the answers and give feedback. 

The following is a list of software that are available for use: 

Poll Everywhere  

Poll Everywhere is polling software which is particularly useful for opinion-based voting. Questions can be embedded into presentation software such as PowerPoint and can therefore be used during teaching sessions to gauge opinions, check learning, etc. See Getting Started with Poll Everywhere for details.

Blackboard Learn Ultra 

MCQ assessments can be designed within Learn Ultra and made available at specific times for students to access, e.g. within a designate class or exam period. 

Numbas  

Numbas is a maths/science-based application that can be used to develop maths bases tests. This can be accessed through Learn Ultra. 

Design of the questions

Once you have decided where and when you are going to use your MCQs, the next step is to design the questions that you are going to ask.  

Broadly questions can be split into the following types: 

Opinion-based 

These questions can be used in lectures where you want to gauge the opinions of students. This could then be used as a starting point for a discussion. 

Closed single answer

These questions have a single correct answer and should be designed to test the learning objectives of your course. 

Using MCQs in summative assessments

Using MCQs for high stakes assessment in UK HEIs is rare. There are several challenges in ensuring the robustness of the technology to provide an environment where students are unable to collude.   

Advantages

  • Can be automatically marked. Easy to score and analyse – so quick for assessing knowledge in large groups. 
  • Provides immediate feedback to the student. 
  • Once created, MCQs can reduce administrative burden on staff compared to marking written work.  
  • All students can be assessed equally (not related to writing style, handwriting etc). 
  • Once written, MCQs can be easily re-used. 

Disadvantages

  • Not good for assessing higher order skills/knowledge (e.g. problem solving, analysis, creativity). Although attempts have been made to design MCQs which promote ‘deeper learning’ (see Howe et al. 2005). 
  • Encourage ‘multiple guess’ style responses from unprepared students. 
  • Usually do not credit students for partial knowledge of a subject area. 

Best Practice Tips

  • Questions should be designed to test a specific learning objective. 
  • Advise students to select the ‘best’ rather than the ‘correct’ answer. 
  • Try developing question pools. This has the advantage that random sets of questions can be drawn from a larger ‘pool’ and assigned on a student-by-student basis (to avoid collusion).  
  • Each answer should be equally plausible. Avoid giving options that can be eliminated by students using limited knowledge (design plausible ‘red herrings’). 
  • Avoid ambiguity. One answer should be unarguably correct (unless you are designing a multiple response type question where there are several acceptable answers). Avoid using complicated language and designing ‘trick’ questions. 
  • The position of the answer should vary. 
  • Good MCQs are timeconsuming to write. If you have lots to write, try group writing or writing over an extended period. 

Further Reading

Carneson et al (2016), Designing and Managing Multiple Choice Questions. 

Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.